Ancient mystery, finally solved: Who invented the minivan? No, it wasn’t Chrysler

Nakayama in front of the world’s first minivan. Picture (c) Bertel Schmitt

Chrysler is widely believed of having invented the minivan, the vehicle universally despised by car bloggers, and much adored by their soccer-moms. Revisionist history, says Ryuji Nakayama, curator of Nissan’s Heritage Collection. Standing in front of a first-generation Nissan Prairie, and sporting his trademark grey mop-top, Nakayama pronounced the Prairie “probably the world’s very first minivan.”

The Nissan Prairie was launched in 1981, three years before Chrysler’s quintessential Dodge Caravan. The Prairie had everything that characterizes this new segment: Three rows of seats, no center, or “B” pillar, “and for the first time, we had a sliding door that opened on one side only,” Nakayama explained today to a group of reporters that found its way to Nissan’s Zama facility, despite a massive typhoon barreling down on Japan’s metropolis.

Zama is deep in the sticks, one and a half hours from downtown, and the facility houses Nissan’s crown jewels: There is Nissan’s trailblazing EV battery plant, called Automotive Energy Supply Corporation, a Nissan-NEC joint-venture that was started in 2007, and that was just signed away to China’s Envision Group, after a deal with a likewise Chinese private equity group fell through due to a lack of funds.

Then there is the company’s highly secretive Global Production Engineering Center, where future generation production engineering methods are developed. If you know the right people at Nissan, you can sometimes talk them into allowing a peek into the company’s R&D and design centers in Atsugi, but the Global Production Engineering Center remains closely shut to outsiders, and even to most insiders. “I have been working for Nissan for more than 20 years now,” told me Nakayama, “and I have never been allowed inside the GPEC.”

And finally, there is the irreplaceable Heritage Collection, more than 450 cars from Nissan’s beginnings in 1930 to now. For many years, the cars were stored in a dark, dusty, and not at all climate-controlled warehouse, until Simon Sproule, then head of Nissan’s global marketing department, tasked Nakayama to give the collection the attention it deserves. These days, the cars sit properly restored in a climatized hall the size of a football field, and if you want to touch a car, you must wear gloves.

As far as Chrysler’s dubious claims to fame go, Autoblog once dispatched a writer into the archives to solve the mystery of “who really invented the minivan?” but Autoblog blew it. It didn’t even mention the Nissan Prairie, which according to Nissan’s head historian deserves the title. “Except that we called it a ‘multipurpose sedan,’ said Nakayama. “The term minivan was coined later.”